Where Is MCAD Going? (MCAD Modeling Column)1 Sep, 2007 By: IDSA ,Mike Hudspeth
A look at the current state of the MCAD industry.
Let me be clear: I'm going to be discussing the state of the MCAD industry. Some people might expect financial statements and information about corporate profits and which companies bought which. But I know you aren't really interested in all that stuff. I know you, as users, want to know about things on a much simpler level. Let the CEOs fight it out over whose bottom line looks best.
In this article
We designers have jobs to do, and the one thing we all appreciate is any tool that will help us do what we do better, faster, or cheaper — it's not rocket science. In the good ol' days, 3D modeling was the sole domain of the big IBM systems. They usually ran on UNIX and weren't very quick. Rendering? Set it up for an overnighter because when you came in the next morning, it still wasn't going to be done. Collaboration? Sending files to one another was necessary but usually a major headache. You had to have a tape drive and, wow! those tapes cost a lot! And speaking of cost — you needed a budget of tens of thousands of dollars. The really interesting thing was that all of that time and expense was needed just to get a static 2D drawing or image. Why? Because no one wanted — or for that matter needed — anything else. Today, we really do have it better.
Power for the Masses
Everything is 3D today. It's hard to avoid it. Even Adobe Acrobat, the industry de facto standard document-transfer format, is offering 3D capability, and that's about as handy as you can get (figure 1)! Imagine this: Someone sends you a PDF file and when you open it, you can freely rotate the image, measure it, and mark it up if you have the proper permissions.
Figure 1. It's hard to recognize that it's Adobe Acrobat. Acrobat now lets you add 3D rotatable objects to your documents. You can even embed other support documents within the PDF file.
Another sign of near-pervasive 3D is that you can visit vendor Web sites for whatever part you want and look that part over by rotating it in real time (figure 2). You can also download a solid model of the part, often in your software's native format. I can tell you from painful, personal experience that that saves you loads of time. It used to be that a very sketchy drawing of a part whose dimensions corresponded with a nearby table was the best you could get. I have found many models that only covered the basic dimensions. If you needed the part to appear in your assembly, you would have to model it. You would have to guesstimate any missing dimensions from an illustration that probably wasn't to any reasonable scale, which means you couldn't even measure things. Now you can obtain a model. I'd call that a vast improvement!
Figure 2. Being able to actually rotate a vendor model in real time is a great way to make sure that what you are about to download is the part you want.
Let 'er RP!
After you've got your 3D models together, you're going to have to make a prototype or two. It's never been easier to get from 3D art to 3D part. Rapid prototyping (RP) is one of the most important technologies of the end of the twentieth century. Various technologies are available that suit a wide range of applications. At their basis, they all break down a 3D model into layers and build each layer one at a time. By the time the machine is finished, you have an actual 3D part that you can hold in your hand. It's as close to a modern engineering miracle as you can get! The reason I mention it (other than the cool factor) is that almost every 3D modeling system on the market now offers RP output. Even though you might not be able to afford your own in-house RP machine (most of the really good ones cost more than $100,000), you can still reap the benefits of the technology by using a service bureau.
It was big news in the RP community a few years ago when the first 3D printers broke the $30,000 barrier. With a large, active company you are probably spending most of that amount each year going to an RP vendor. Imagine recouping that cost by making as many RP prototypes as you want. And now, we have some RP units that are less than one-half that price!
In fact, Fab@Home lets you freely download plans for what the site calls a digital fabricator, or fabber (figure 3). This thing is essentially an RP machine on the cheap. You can build it yourself for approximately $2,400. The resolution isn't quite as high as the professional units, but it's a start. Cornell University, the fabber's designer, envisions the device as something like a forerunner of Star Trek's replicator. The folks at Cornell say that it can make just about anything using different materials. I don't know about that. It sounds good, but it'll need more development before it truly lives up to its promise.
Figure 3. Rapid Prototyping machines are getting more cost-effective every day. Here is a new entry you can build for yourself.
Cheap, or Even Free!
One of the most important and more recent developments in MCAD is the trickle-down principle. Take the car industry. Everyone's seen a professional racecar. It's usually loaded with fancy, high-tech stuff to squeeze every ounce of performance from progressively smaller engines. The big car companies use racing to test what they intend for family cruisers. Many features go straight into production. It's like that with 3D modelers today. More and higher-power features are available in the discount systems than were available for the big boys just a few years ago. You can find some pretty decent modeling ability for not a lot of green. A lot of good systems are out there, including Alibre, Google SketchUp (figure 4), and Rhino.
Figure 4. You can download trial versions of software and later buy it. That can be a great way of getting a good idea of what's out there. Google's SketchUp software is very easy to learn and use.
But the really exciting stuff is what you can get for free — zip, nada, bubkes. And yes, these freebies are actually worth having! Alibre offers Design Xpress, a scaled-down version of its Design product, which you might remember from a few years back as X-CAD. CoCreate has its OneSpace Modeling Personal Edition. Some free 2D programs such as UGS Solid Edge 2D also are available. These programs aren't just toys. They're serious products that will allow you to learn and do what you need to do. As they are free to download, you should. Try them out. What do you have to lose?
Benefits for End Users
So what's the state of the MCAD industry? I'd say pretty good — for the end user. Could it be better? Of course. Until we are able to pass files seamlessly between applications without a translator, we will have compatibility issues. Things are getting better, but we're not there yet. But design software is at an all-time high when it comes to usability, capability, and affordability. You get more for your money, even when you don't have to spend any, and it's easier to use. Yep, I'd say today's designer has it pretty good indeed.
Mike Hudspeth, IDSA, is an industrial designer, artist, and author based in St. Louis, Missouri.